New Zealand: A tasty tour

There's more to New Zealand cuisine than lamb and a certain furry fruit. Rory Ross taste-tests Auckland's culinary hot-spots - and finds for food this good, no journey's too long

Many people probably still think of New Zealand cuisine as something of an oxymoron, lightly pan-seared and served with a massive pinch of salt and a non-sequitur coulis. But New Zealand has more to offer than just its hottest culinary export, chef Peter Gordon, who owns Providores restaurant on Marylebone High Street in London and now a second restaurant, almost 12,000 miles away in his home town. On the other hand, Rex Morgan, one of New Zealand's other pre-eminent chefs, owner of Citron restaurant in Wellington and The Spire in Queenstown, still laughs at the idea of New Zealand cuisine. "There's no such thing," he told me. "Only 'beef, lamb, chicken, fish or duck'. It's the meat-and-two-veg syndrome. We don't have a real identity of our own, so we have adopted things from around the world."

"Beef, lamb, chicken, fish or duck" sums up the modesty of the Kiwi table. No other country can hold a knife and fork to New Zealand's wild ingredients, yet every other country has plundered the New Zealand larder of fruit, vegetables and dairy products. What would Sunday lunch be without New Zealand roast lamb? Where would nouvelle cuisine be without the kiwi fruit?

I begin my culinary odyssey in Auckland. At a glance, the city is a strange nut to crack. The fifth-largest urban sprawl in the world, it has a population of about one million, spread between clusters of interconnecting villages. Think Sydney minus the Harbour Bridge and Opera House, and then turn down the volume. Right down.

Look closer and the first thing you notice is that Auckland is on a caffeine-induced high. Auckland has shot from filter-coffee-style water to probably the best espresso experience outside Italy in about 13 years, skipping the Starbucks phase altogether. "The coffee scene is phenomenal," says Peter Gordon. "Every second person seems to be a barista. It's funny that it has taken so long for it to reach New Zealand, but they have embraced it in the way latecomers do and taken it to a fine art."

The coffee hotspot is Ponsonby Road, located in a salvaged inner-city suburb that, despite gentrification, still offers the occasional bohemian moment thanks to pockets of renting artists and long-standing residents who have resisted the siren call of the estate agent. Ponsonby and its environs is also Auckland's gay heartland. A Pride-type carnival - the Hero Parade - used to run along Ponsonby Road, until it went bust. Among the boutiques here, the likes of Paul Smith rubs shoulders with local labels like World, for eccentric 80s-influenced clothes; Tanya Carlson, a Dunedin designer-cum-rock-chick who pedals a sophisticated look; Miss Crabb, for avant-garde wear; and Zambesi, New Zealand's favourite, which is already available in Britain but will soon open a boutique. You can let the plastic cool off while checking out the swinging under-30s bar scene, some dreadful restaurants and a plethora of great cafés, each one roasting their own beans, adding their own idiosyncratic twist to your average mocca soya latte flat and cultivating foaming skills. In a city littered with cafés, Ponsonby Road is the Golden Mile.

This windy (gusty, not sinuous) thoroughfare is lined with charming Victorian strip-type shops interspersed with cafés, "restos" and tables spilling out on to the pavement. Every café has its own niche-scene. "A café in New Zealand is not like a café in Britain," says Gordon. "A place like Delicious, for example, is an affordable version of the River Café. My favourite café is Dizengoff."

Dizengoff is a legendary fixture, popular as a breakfast stop for the film and television set, artists and photographers. It is a small, stark, modern, shoe-boxy room which, with all those directors' voices and the coffee grinder, gets noisy, but manages to be groovy, and is hung with surprisingly good art by Colin McCahon, New Zealand's pre-eminent painter. The espressi are excellent, as is the Jewish-deli-inspired food (no pork products, lots of bagels, chopped liver, chicken salad, etc), notably their extraordinarily rich mushrooms on sourdough toast with balsamic cream reduction, and scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on toast.

Other essential Ponsonby hangouts include Agnes Curran, a retro place with excellent old-fashioned baking such as local-cult melting moment biscuits. Season is popular for the specials scrawled on a wall-hung roll of brown wrapping paper, typically, Iranian baked eggs scattered with spicy lentils, mint, harissa-type relish and caramelised garlic cloves, or smoked fish and potato pie made in a soup plate and baked to order (no pastry). Santos café employs arguably the best coffee roasters in Auckland; it presents a vivid bohemian scene, chocker with musicians, students, DJs and Brazilian staff. SPQR is more like a restaurant than a café, and offers a lively street vibe in the heart of Ponsonby's gay area, but not exclusively so. Go for its great pizza, big wine list, big lunch scene, waiters with attitude and long hours. At Bambina, which is modelled on Bill's in Sydney, you sit at a communal table spread with the glossies, or at one of the tightly packed sidewalk tables; the menu is modern, although flavours can underwhelm and the service is straight out of the chiller cabinet.

Cafés are where New Zealanders go in-between meals to plan where to eat next. But when the dinner gong resonates, they turn into altogether different creatures, leaping from extreme coffee culture to conservative meat-and-two-vegers again. Now, this problem is being addressed as New Zealand enters a critical phase in its culinary evolution thanks to star chefs like Gordon, Morgan and others. Having travelled the world, they realise that the only thing holding New Zealand back from culinary Great Power status is this entrenched mindset.

"While the variety of local ingredients is limited, the quality is prime," says Gordon. "The food scene has moved on enormously since I left in 1981. I'd never even seen a cappuccino until then, and when I did, I thought it was the coolest thing imaginable. There are some great top-end restaurants in New Zealand now. Chefs who travel abroad get so excited about the potential of New Zealand. Auckland has become a foodie destination, but in a positive - not a silly - way. Wellington now has as many restaurants per head of population as New York, but then New York has lots of really bad restaurants." Rex Morgan echoes this: "We are trying to educate our public by taking them on a taste journey, rather than offering them a stomach-filler. We are getting there, slowly."

Talking of ingredients, some of New Zealand's greatest delicacies have exquisitely short seasons. Right now, for example, the whitebait season is in full swing until 30 November. Whitebait arouses great passions in New Zealanders, who pay up to NZ$100 (£40) for a kilo. Bluff oysters are another prized local delicacy whose season begins in March and lasts only a couple of months. These oysters inhabit the ocean floor off the South Island, have a smooth, round shell, a saline taste and have defied all attempts at farming. They are the grouse of New Zealand: as soon as the first bivalves hit the shore, they are delivered by helicopter around the country.

In April, Peter Gordon made a massive splash in Auckland when he opened the imaginatively named "dine by Peter Gordon" in the Skycity Grand Hotel. It's a fabulous place. From the ceiling hang two great ring-shaped modern-glass sculpture chandeliers, which resemble rings of fire. There are faintly oriental wood panels, leather banquettes and dark wood chairs. It's a serious-looking joint, which oozes substance * * and class. The food on offer matches this magnificent setting.

Gordon has always enthusiastically embraced kitchen multi-culturalism while staying on the sane side of the loony-eclecticism boundary. When I first ate his food at the Sugar Club in London, he hit a number of genuine highs, but some dishes were just experimental Frankenstein concoctions to see if they would work. Gordon is now cooking in a different league. His food seems to have taken on gravitas, while losing none of the innovative edge, and it has the feel of a substantial cuisine, rather than just the effusions of a chef trying to re-invent the carrot.

The menu at dine by Peter Gordon reads like his spell-check has got indigestion. Dishes include Spronkled wattleseed prosciutto with yuma-yuma coulis with seared tataki mushroom and bok choy salsa. Dinner began with an amuse-bouche of seared sashimi of line-caught yellow fin with truffled yuzu, hijiki and umeboshi dressing - crisp, clean and clear, clearly aimed at people with diminished attention spans who crave an instant hit. After that came a Xany Zeus haloumi salad with water chestnut, then a coconut laksa followed by an intercourse guava and something sorbet served with a shot of iced sake. After roast Cambridge duck with cranberry galangal compote, the finale was vanilla meringue with tamarind mascarpone, vanilla roast pineapple, banana sorbet and feijoa syrup.

"It's about putting flavours from Polynesia together in a harmonious way," Gordon's right-hand chef Cobus Klopper tells me. "Peter has such a good understanding of the ingredients he uses. Take the laksa: a seafood, coconut and noodle soup that's basically an Asian bisque. You don't need to go to Asia to find out how to make one. Peter's has green tea soba noodles with a quail egg and an authentic laksa smoked-chicken broth, into which are tossed Malaysian ingredients such as galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, garlic and chilli. This is a dish that Peter has created. It's bloody good. I've had a number of authentic laksas. Peter's is better."

Another torchbearer of new New Zealand cuisine is Michael Meredith of The Grove restaurant. Meredith, a Pacific Islander, applies what he describes as a "modern New Zealand approach". "New Zealand culture is so 'multi' - European, Asian, Middle Eastern, Polynesian and Pacific - that we draw on different eating experiences. That is what I think the modern style is. New Zealand food doesn't really have a strong individualistic style, except in the sense of the old English meat and two veg. We use ingredients that are grown here, but the influences come from a lot of the other cultures that we have here."

Meredith and I wander down to Auckland harbour, which was completely redeveloped for the America's Cup in 2003 (which New Zealand lost to Switzerland). We pop into Soul, a popular new bar and bistro overlooking the harbour which specialises in five varieties of fish - snapper, John Dory, cod charlatan (a faux cod), tuna and hapuka (like a grouper) - done in four different ways, the bestseller being snapper. Judith Tabron, Soul's owner, a tough-looking blonde, gave me her overview of the Kiwi food scene. "We were settled mainly by the British Welsh, Irish and Scottish from the working class," she says. "But the working class didn't want their children to work in the service industry, which has held up our restaurant culture. But progress is being made. Ten years ago, who would thought Aucklanders would have accepted a lentil and tomato vinaigrette on their fish?"

That evening I meet Laurie Black, Auckland's number one gastronomic authority. We head for the French Café, which is considered the best restaurant in Auckland but is located near a major arterial intersection with a couple of sad "adult" venues across the road. The French Cafe began its life more than 27 years ago, and after several evolutionary cycles, it is now neither French nor a café. Simon Wright, the chef-owner, actually hails from Chiswick, which counts as an exotic destination here.

"Simon really works at it," Black tells me as we sit down. "The French Café has a lovely sense of being a restaurant in a world of restaurants."

I ask her about the Peter Gordon sensation. "Everyone was very excited that there was going to be a Peter Gordon restaurant in Auckland," she says, sipping an extremely good asparagus cappuccino sprinkled with powdered porcini. "We don't have any other menus like his here. As a piece of literature, it is almost unreadable. There can't be more than two Aucklanders who know what every ingredient on it is. That is the paradox of Peter's food. He wants it to be comfortable and enjoyable, but he wants to get there in a different way. He's not trying to terrify anyone's tastes."

After what was, I must say, a truly stunning dinner, Simon Wright chips in. "In New Zealand you have to be very careful as a chef; they are tough customers. In Britain you find chefs who walk the wacky fringe, mixing combinations and techniques. But here, were I to serve, say, lamb with passion-fruit jelly, we'd sell it, but be asked to leave out the passion fruit jelly."

So there you have it: a trickle-down food revolution lead by a handful of chefs playing to a largely unimpressed public. Personally, I came to scoff, but left converted.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The only airline with direct services from the UK to Auckland is Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; www.airnz.co.nz), which flies daily from Heathrow via Los Angeles; you have to deal with US immigration formalities at LA airport, but the procedures are now relatively straightforward.

Alternatively, you can stopover in San Francisco thanks to an Air New Zealand "codeshare" arrangement. Many Asian, American or Middle Eastern airlines offer connecting services; travelling via the east, Singapore Airlines and Malaysia Airlines offer one-stop services from Heathrow or Manchester via their hub cities, while Emirates has connections via Dubai from Gatwick, Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow.

You can easily include Auckland in a round-the-world itinerary, either devised by a long-haul travel specialist or using one of the airline alliance programmes, such as that offered by the Star Alliance.

Auckland's user-friendly airport is 21km south-west of the city centre. The Airbus (00 64 9 375 4730; www.airbus.co.nz) leaves every 20 or 30 minutes, 6am-10pm, for NZ$15 (£6), and stops at major hotels and backpackers' hostels. Alternatively, a taxi will cost around NZ$40 (£17) and get you to the centre in about half an hour, traffic permitting.

STAYING THERE

For sea views you can't beat the Hilton, at the end of Princes Wharf (00 64 9 978 2000; www.auckland.hilton.com). A room in low season costs NZ$416 (£160) excluding breakfast. At the SKYCITY Grand Hotel, Federal Street, Auckland (0800 028 8817; www.skycityauckland.co.nz) double rooms start at NZ$236 (£95), room only. Mollies on Tweed, 6 Tweed Street, St Mary's Bay, Auckland (00 64 9 376 3489; www.mollies.co.nz). Double rooms start at NZ$546 (£220), room only.

Aachen House, 39 Market Road, Remuera, Auckland (00 64 9 520 2329; www.aachenhouse.co.nz). Double rooms start at NZ$304 (£122), including breakfast. If you are on a budget, there are plenty of hostels, including the well-named Auckland Central Backpackers - conveniently located on the corner of Queen and Darby Street (00 64 9 358 4877; www.acb.co.nz). Dormitory beds start at a very reasonable NZ$25 (£10), without breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

Citron, 270 Willis Street, central Wellington
(00 64 4 801 6263).

The Spire, Church Lane, Queenstown
(00 64 3 441 0004).

In Auckland:

Dizengoff, 256 Ponsonby Road, Ponsonby
(00 64 9 360 0108).

Agnes Curran, 181 Ponsonby Road
(00 64 9 360 1551).

Season, 118 Ponsonby Road
(00 64 9 378 7979).

Santos Café, 114-116 Ponsonby Road (00 64 9 378 8431).

SPQR, 150 Ponsonby Road
(00 64 9 360 1710).

Bambina, 268 Ponsonby Road
(00 64 9 378 7766).

Dine by Peter Gordon, SKYCITY Grand Hotel, 90 Federal Street
(00 64 9 363 7030).

Michael Meredith, Saint Patrick's Square, Wyndham Street
(00 64 9 368 4129).

Soul, Viaduct Harbour
(00 64 9 356 7249).

The French Café, 210 Symonds Street
(00 64 9 377 1911).

FURTHER INFORMATION

The Auckland i-SITE

Visitor Information Centre (at the foot of the Sky Tower) is open 8am-8pm daily. Tourism Auckland (00 64 9 979 7070; www.aucklandnz.com).

Tourism New Zealand (0906 601 3601, calls cost 60p/min; www.newzealand.com).

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